White throated guenon inside a cage

Investigation reveals Ethiopian Airlines’ role in cruel global wildlife trade

Press release

Ethiopian Airlines is shipping live wild animals around the world for luxury use as exotic pets from West Africa, posing huge biosecurity and disease risks as well as the threat to animal welfare and conservation, reveals World Animal Protection.

The report Cargo of Cruelty’  reviewed social media activity to demonstrate how airlines   are fueling wildlife trade - enabling the international transport of wild animals to meet the global demand for exotic pets. The global supply of exotic pets is largely undocumented, and regulation is insufficient. The report also identifies aspects of the trade that may not comply with international legal requirements1, and shows that legality does not guarantee the wildlife trade is safe, sustainable or humane.

Ethiopian Airlines, the largest aviation group on the African continent, is a major enabler, and the most frequently used airline transporting animals out of West Africa in this report. Many of these animals are threatened with extinction or have unknown or declining wild population trends. They suffer when they are captured and kept in cruel conditions, which can leave them stressed and vulnerable to infection or death.

Not only is the global wildlife trade considered to be one of the leading causes of ecosystem collapse and biodiversity loss globally, but exploitation of wildlife also poses huge biosecurity risks. More than 70% of zoonotic emerging infectious diseases are thought to originate from wild animals2, with poor welfare conditions and proximity to people creating the ideal situation for viruses to mutate and spillover to humans.

The report provides the most detailed insight to date into the diversity and global extent of wildlife trade originating from West Africa, a recognised trade hub and major exporter. Specifically, it reveals:

  • Two hundred different species, including 187 vertebrates, were advertised as available for sale or export by just two wildlife trader social media accounts in Togo, West Africa, between 2016 and 2020
  • Over 7% of the species identified in the social media posts are classified as either Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species3, demonstrating that species threatened with extinction are caught up in the trade
  • At least four of 33 Ethiopian Airlines shipments analysed, carried mammals of high biosecurity concern, including African civets, primates, and marsh mongooses to destinations in Italy, South Korea, Thailand, and Malaysia
  • Genets, rough-scaled lizards, African spurred tortoises, Savannah monitor lizards, green bush vipers, chameleons and scorpions were among the most frequently shipped animals via Ethiopian Airlines.

There are concerns that the airline is not operating in compliance with International Air Transportation Association (IATA) Live Animal Regulations. The report documented animals such as tortoises, packed so tightly they struggle to fully extend their head and neck during the journey. Airlines violating these regulations may be subject to legal penalties, according to IATA.

There are also concerns that some shipments of wild animals currently regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) left Togo and Ghana without the required permits or in excess of agreed export quotas.

Edith Kabesiime, Wildlife Campaigns Manager, World Animal Protection, said:

“While the world still grapples with the pandemic, it’s important to remember how it’s believed to have all started – the wildlife trade. People continue to be subjected to travel restrictions to stop the spread of disease, so it’s shocking to know that wild animals of high biosecurity risk are being flown around the world, going under the radar. We could have a trojan horse situation as wild animals are known to pose disease risks. We need to stop pathogens spreading, and the most effective way to do this is to stop them being placed on an airplane in the first place. The luxury exotic pet trade is a good place to start.

“The pandemic has painfully demonstrated that the current state of the luxury exotic pet trade not only risks animal welfare, but public health and economic security in West Africa too.

“West Africa’s wildlife is being exploited and large swathes of animals are depleting at a concerning rate. This is being driven by international consumers for luxury purposes, with the reckless exotic pet trade being a major contributor. Wild animals are the victims – suffering unthinkable cruelty in the process.

“Ethiopian Airlines has an important role in connecting Africa to the world. They are importing lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines, but at the same time, by exporting live wild animals, they could be transporting dangerous pathogens around the world.  The airline has a responsibility to safeguard against future pandemics and protect the continent's incredible wildlife.”

World Animal Protection is urgently calling on Ethiopian Airlines and other airlines to help restrict trade, with immediate action on species that are high biosecurity risks, with the aim for airlines to transition away from all transportation of wildlife for commercial exploitation as luxury exotic pets.



Notes to editors:

Recently, WHO, OIE and UNEP interim guidance4 called on authorities to suspend live wild animal sales in traditional food markets as an emergency measure to prevent future pandemics.

Italy has also shown leadership and have banned the trade of wild and exotic animals, which sends a clear signal for other G20 countries to follow suit5.   

In 2019, following a campaign by World Animal Protection, Turkish Airlines and Turkish Cargo ceased shipping Africa Grey Parrots from Africa.


[1] International legal requirements such as International Air Transportation Association (IATA) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

[2] Jones, K.E.; Patel, N.G.; Levy, M.A.; Storeygard, A.; Balk, D.; Gittleman, J.L.; Daszak, P. (2008). Global trends in emerging infectious diseases. Nature, 451, 990–993, doi:10.1038/nature06536, Van Dorn, HR (2014) Emerging Infectious Diseases – Medicine (Abingdon). doi.org/10.1016/j.mpmed.2013.10.014

[3] IUCN, 2020

[4] WHO, OIE and UNEP (12th April 2021) Reducing public health risks associated with the sale of live wild animals of mammalian species in traditional food markets.

People continue to be subjected to travel restrictions to stop the spread of disease, so it’s shocking to know that wild animals of high biosecurity risk are being flown around the world, going under the radar.